Bill aims to curb influence of judicial campaign contributions. Good luck with that. | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Bill aims to curb influence of judicial campaign contributions. Good luck with that.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 26, 2015 at 11:23 AM

State Rep. John Baine introduced legislation today to require judges to recuse from hearing civil cases "if as a result of a substantial campaign contribution made to or on behalf of the justice or judge in the immediately preceding election by a party who has a case pending before that justice or judge."

A rebuttable presumption that a contribution is substantial arises if the contribution:

Was made by the party when it was reasonably foreseeable that the case would come before the judge or justice; and

Exceeds Ten percent (10%) of the total contributions raised during the election cycle by a Justice of the Supreme Court or Judge of the Court of Appeals;

Fifteen percent (15%) of the total contributions raised during the election cycle by a circuit court judge; and

Twenty-five percent (25%) of the total contributions raised during the election cycle by a district court judge.

The problem, of course, is that somebody must be a party, a fairly narrowly defined term.

Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood, for example, got about 50 percent of her initial campaign contributions for her race for the court from the nursing home industry. This bill wouldn't create a rebuttable presumption for her recusal if a nursing home party in a case before her was not one of those that contributed to her campaign, though the industry has clearly delineated and shared interests and might create questions about impartiality.

Nice try, Rep. Baine. But watching the legislature worm its way around efforts to impose higher standards has made me more than cynical.

Take Amendment 94, please. In the name of "ethics," legislators can now serve longer terms at higher pay with free meals galore, even meals costing well over the $100 limit, since "scheduled activity" dinners have been exempted from the gift rule.

Take the effort — through a successful lawsuit by Mike Wilson — to end the practice of legislators' splitting up state surplus for unconstitutional local pork barrel projects. The legislature quickly devised a work-around — money is sent to Planning and Development Districts and then spent as directed by local legislators. Remember Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson's Saline County fireworks show? Just today, Claudia Lauer in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote about how Rep. Eddie Armstrong directed surplus money into warmups for the North Little Rock High football team. None dare call this unconstitutional local legislation.

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